Why Disagreement Feels So Yucky and What to Do about It

In a previous post, I wrote about how and why we disagree. We can disagree about what’s true, arguments that can be resolved by seeking out the facts of the matter. An argument about who contributes more to household expenses should be easily resolved by looking at bank statements and receipts.

An argument about what is meaningful is harder to resolve. What is Meaningful arguments are rooted in values and feelings, and there’s no objective authority that can prove who’s right. Political arguments are one of the best examples of this.

Finally, conflicts about what will is useful or what will work can crop up when you have different ideas about how to approach a problem or what might be a fair solution. These arguments are settled by compromise and a test – you try it one way to see if it works and adjust if it doesn’t.

Buster Benson, author of Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement says conflict sparks anxiety, which is why it makes us so unhappy. “Anxiety sparks when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way. If we find this new perspective to be unacceptable, that’s when our “Someone is wrong on the internet; I must correct them!” impulse leaps into action.” (You know who you are.)

Benson says that because every one of us has different levels of anxiety about what happens (or doesn’t happen) around us, conflict can pop up out of nowhere. Dirty dishes in the sink might make you crazy while your spouse doesn’t even notice them. Unexpected changes to your schedule, people who don’t act the way you think they should, things breaking… all these have different impacts on different people.

Something as simple as recognizing the difference in anxiety levels can make a big difference in how you handle and resolve conflict. You might have a team member who gets very anxious at the thought of delivering a project late. For her, the idea of lateness causes a strong spike, when her laid back  teammate doesn’t get upset when things go down to the wire.

Developing a system of rating your anxiety – say 1 – 5 – can help you and whomever you have to work or live with. You may not be able to totally avoid conflict, but you can at least talk about it productively.  Benson suggests these steps.

  1. When you notice anxiety, pause and ask yourself: are you anxious about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful?
  2. Ask the other party the same question. Do they give the same answer or something different?
  3. Narrate out loud what each of you is anxious about (this buys more time and slows things down). Reiterate how each of you answered the question to see if that leads to new connections for yourself or the other person.
  4. Check to see if either of you is willing to switch to what the other is anxious about. Who has more cognitive dissonance happening and could use the other’s help?

So much conflict in the world is sparked by people needing to be right about something. They mistake their preferences for facts. “This is the right way to do this.” You should be… (fill in the blank.” That’s just plain wrong.”

Think of how much disagreement and angst we could eliminate if we just practiced this mantra: “Doing (X) or thinking that way is something that works for some people.”

Don’t be alarmed if you struggled with that sentence. It’s hard. Really, really hard.

Benson writes: “When one person is trying to manage a large source of anxiety, and the conversation focuses on strategies that aren’t sufficient to resolve that anxiety, the disagreement will escalate and escalate until a solution that’s sufficient appears. Recruiting past disagreements and comparisons to other people and reaching for less healthy methods of resolution like yelling, insults, resentment, and denial become increasingly necessary methods of anxiety management.”

Be especially careful here if you’re someone who prides themselves on being rational in every argument. You can easily become the problem and not even know it.

You become the problem by focusing the argument on What is True – arguing about the facts when the other party is focused on What is Meaningful or What is Useful. If you find yourself in an endless slog of unpleasant argument, check in with what the other party is really anxious about. Focus on them, rather than on being right.

If you give up your need to be right, you just might start to feel less yucky.

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